NEW YORK – A Christian congregation with just 48 members and not even a storefront is hoping the Supreme Court will overturn a ruling that says holding its Sunday service in a Bronx public school is unconstitutional.
At issue is a New York City Board of Education policy that allows community groups, including religious ones, to use its buildings, but specifically excludes worship services.
A divided federal appeals court upheld the policy in June, reversing a district judge. The Supreme Court is considering whether to review the case and could decide that on Monday. If it grants review, its eventual opinion could be a landmark decision, the church's lawyer says.
Robert Hall, co-pastor of the evangelical Bronx Household of Faith, said last week that his little group never expected to get involved in a big-time court case that has now lasted 17 years.
"I can assure you this wasn't strategic planning on our part," the 68-year-old Minnesota native said. "Basically we just outgrew the place we were meeting," a Christian halfway house for men.
In 1994, church leaders looked at the nearby public school in its University Heights neighborhood, applied for a permit to hold its worship service there, and were denied.
That began a legal wrangle that reached the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals four times as Supreme Court decisions came down and the law evolved.
An early key moment came in 1995 when Hall, who has been with the church for 39 years, heard Alliance Defense Fund staff attorney Jordan Lorence on the radio, discussing barriers to religious rights.
"He called me up and said, 'We're facing that issue right here,'" Lorence said.
Enter the ADF, a conservative group that says it champions "the legal defense of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage and the family." It has been on the case since and is bearing the costs. Lorence is the lead attorney.
"We took the case to defend the First Amendment principle of equal access," Lorence said. "This is private religious speech and we're requesting equal access to meet in the buildings the way New York City allows all other community groups to meet."
In 2002, during a time when the city was enjoined from enforcing its policy, the Household of Faith began using Public School 15, and it has been there ever since.
In its most recent ruling, in June, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the while city policy excludes religious worship from its buildings, it does not exclude "prayer, singing hymns, religious instruction, expression of religious devotion, or the discussion of issues from a religious point of view."
The court found the distinction reasonable, saying that when worship services are held in a school, "The place has, at least for a time, become the church."
The court said the distinction accommodated a 2001 Supreme Court decision allowing a Christian organization to use public school facilities. It also was a reasonable way for the city to avoid violating the Constitution's prohibition on government favoring any religion, the court said.
The Board of Education praised the ruling, saying it was "concerned about having any school in this diverse city identified with one particular religious belief or practice." However, it is allowing the 60 or so congregations that now hold services in schools to continue, pending Supreme Court action.
Lorence said the distinction between religious expression and worship is arbitrary.
"You can have singing and prayer and Bible study, with all the elements of what people traditionally understand a worship service to be, but you can't have a worship service?" he said.
He theorized that a group could hold a worship service and not call it that, "and the school district will need a theologian to figure out whether the group is conducting a worship service or not."
Hall said the Household of Faith's service lasts 90 minutes or more and includes Scripture readings, hymns, communion with grape juice and bread, preaching and "spontaneous prayer" from the congregation.
Lorence said he found "bizarre" the concept that the auditorium at Public School 15 becomes a church if worship is conducted there.
"When a labor union meets there, it doesn't turn into a labor hall," he said. "When Alcoholics Anonymous meets there, it doesn't turn into the Betty Ford Clinic."
But Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, "When a church sets up shop in a public school in a manner that conveys the appearance that the church is part of, or officially favored by, the school, it seems to run afoul of the separation of church and state."
Lorence predicted the Supreme Court would grant review and reverse the 2nd Circuit. But if not, he said, "It's over for the Bronx Household of Faith" because he can no longer go back to the 2nd Circuit.
"We're at high noon here," he said.
Pastor Hall said the church isn't worried. Though the church office is Hall's home, and some of their meetings are held in backyards, they are raising funds to complete construction of a building across from P.S. 15 that would handle all their needs, including youth ministry and worship services.
"Nobody's getting angry, there's no bad-mouthing the Board of Ed," he said. "We're kind of rolling with the punches and trusting in the Lord that he will work things out according to his good wisdom."